Education Reclamation

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Meanwhile, the wages for FLDS members in non-teaching positions are frequently much higher. Several FLDS bus drivers and other support staff are making more than $30,000 a year. Top FLDS school administrators are paid more than $50,000 annually, according to district records.

Earlier this school year, teachers' paychecks began bouncing while FLDS school board members and administrators flew across the Southwest in a district-owned, $220,000 Cessna to attend conferences and workshops. No other school district in Arizona owns an airplane.

This stark dichotomy finally attracted the Legislature's attention.

Much of the credit for passage of the long-overdue law should go to Terry Goddard. The law, Goddard says, "provides an effective tool to take over school districts where public funds are being mismanaged."

In addition to the receivership bill, Goddard has worked closely with his Utah counterpart, Mark Shurtleff, to create a joint task force to investigate child abuse allegations that swirl around the community.

Mohave County is also putting pressure on the FLDS by dispatching a special investigator to the community to probe an assortment of alleged illegal activities. Last year, the state and Mohave County opened a joint government services center in Colorado City that includes space for law enforcement and social service agencies.

Governor Napolitano, meanwhile, has steadfastly avoided this issue since her 2002 election, despite the fact that education and the protection of children are central planks of her administration.

Napolitano said during a May 11 press conference that she was "pleased to sign the bill" and hopes that "it has a significant impact." But it was clear the Democratic governor wanted to move quickly to any topic other than Colorado City and polygamy.

It appears that Napolitano desperately wants to avoid getting into bedroom issues, especially with Republicans planning to put a gay marriage ban on the 2006 general election ballot in hopes of triggering a big turnout of "values" voters who will be inclined to pull the lever for anybody but the Democratic incumbent.

Arizona Republicans are hoping to follow the successful strategy used by President George W. Bush during the 2004 election where Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry in Ohio and several other battleground states where gay marriage propositions were on the ballot.

The school district legislation, which goes into effect on August 13, will allow the state Board of Education to appoint a receiver to take over day-to-day operations of any financially failing school district such as Colorado City.

Horne says he expects a receiver to be appointed in August or September to take over daily operations in Colorado City.

"It's clear to me they are dysfunctional," Horne tells me. "I think we have gathered the evidence to get a receiver in there."

While Horne says he's now delighted with the law, the Republican almost derailed the legislation in a heavy-handed attempt to expand his authority over public school districts statewide.

Horne backed a bill that would have given him the power to appoint a receiver to run any school district that the state Board of Education found to be "grossly dysfunctional." The bill supported by Goddard only allowed appointment of a receiver for financially failing districts.

Horne's power grab triggered a backlash from public education associations that were opposed to the state's gaining too much control over local school districts. By late April, legislation to address the serious problems in Colorado City appeared to be stalled.

But Horne finally agreed to limit the receivership bill to school districts in financial trouble, clearing the way for the bill to pass the Legislature. The Senate approved the measure by a 29-0 vote, and the House by 59-0.

The new receivership law is a step in the right direction, but it isn't enough. One major problem is that it will automatically expire in two years. The Legislature must allow the state more time to clean up the Colorado City school district. Another key issue that must be addressed is the political reality that FLDS members far outnumber other voters in the Colorado City school district boundary.

The state would be wise to consider merging the Colorado City school district with the public school district in Fredonia, about 30 miles to the east. This would reduce the chance that the FLDS will once again assume control over the Colorado City public school.

The state is likely to appoint Mohave County school superintendent Mike File to serve as receiver. File says he's willing to accept the position and eager to make fundamental changes to allow the district to operate in the best interest of the teachers and students rather than the FLDS.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty